Occasionally the job ads give a glimpse of the future. Take, for instance, this one published last week by the University of Bristol, for a full-time ‘Senior Tutor’ in the School of Modern Languages.
This is not a new initiative for Bristol (instead, I’m told, it’s a replacement position), but throws light on a serious and distinctive commitment. The appointee ‘will be responsible for the provision of high quality professional pastoral support and advice to undergraduate students and will play a pivotal role in supporting the student experience, student progression and well-being’. S/he ‘will act as the interface between the academic staff in the School and the central support services in the University, ensuring appropriate communication and actions’. The role does not require a higher degree and involves neither research nor conventional academic teaching.
At a time when wellbeing services at universities across the country are under strain and academics are struggling to adequately support their students, this might give those of us working with different structures reason to rethink.
Who’s the senior tutor?
To the best of my knowledge, the senior tutor story begins in Oxbridge colleges, where this is a long-established managerial role. Senior tutors there work across disciplines, managing teaching programmes as well as overseeing student welfare and discipline. They tend to occupy a hinterland between academic and professional services roles: some are conventional academics, others are more fully on a managerial career-path.
In other universities, the role is usually more strictly pastoral. At my own, where we have had senior tutors within departments for roughly ten years, they oversee the personal tutoring system and increasingly deal with acute and problematic cases of student welfare. They need to liaise with various relevant support services, including wellbeing services, counselling, disability-support, exams, and so on.
This role has become critical to just about any department, yet the pressures it brings are great. The very same day that Bristol posted its ad, our current senior tutor was in my office telling me that the job is becoming unmanageable, configured (as it is) as part of a standard ‘education and research’ post. It also takes a significant emotional toll on academics, who take it on with little or no training.
How do they pay for that?
All the same, four posts across a faculty, at salaries in the mid £40k range, would concentrate the minds of most managers. I can hear now the response to any such proposal where I work: ‘You mean you want to appoint four non-research acitve staff for the price of five junior lecturers? Really?’ Those research-active lecturers bring down staff-student ratios, are responsible for earning research income via the REF and grants, and refresh departmental cultures. We like appointing them – and traditionally, they can do it all.
The other challenge with full-time non-research academic posts is the long academic summers. What does a senior tutor do while their researcher colleagues are hard at work on publications and grant applications? The full Bristol job description (google it) includes work on employability (e.g. development of teaching materials, work on placements), as well as some general education-facing administration. But most of this sort of thing still tends to fall in term-time.
Nonetheless, there remain some powerful arguments in favour of the Bristol model. We’re already committing an awful lot of staff time to these functions. In my own department, it’s absorbing about 20% to 25% of a full-time academic workload, and this is supported by substantial further contributions from professional services colleagues. We could reduce that load – but only if we were prepared to diminish the quality of our monitoring and support structures, which we’re not.
There is also an argument for specialisation. Someone with the right skill-set, on hand any time in any academic year, is likely to be more effective than an academic juggling other duties, who may only have a couple of years in the post before passing it on to someone else. And a professionalized senior tutor is likely to build up the experience and institutional networks that can be so valuable in a role of this kind.
Changing world, changing models
Bristol has also been in the news for student suicides. The risk of such extreme events shadows all universities; one of my ever-present anxieties as head of department is that we lose a student and we’re not able to look the parents in the eye and say, ‘We knew your child, we’re devastated by what’s happened – and, by the way, we did all we could to support him/her’. In ethical terms, indeed in simple human terms, what would be the consequences of saying anything else?
So I admire the Bristol commitment. We can’t change the seemingly inexorable rise in wellbeing problems among students, but we can do something about it. The shifting context perhaps requires some imaginative thinking – maybe even some redirection of resources.
And finally, there’s a very short answer to the question: ‘how do they pay for that?’ Students pay us £9000 per year before putting their education and welfare in our hands.